My field site is soaked with blood.
I am a cultural anthropologist. The area where I generally do most of my fieldwork is called, “the Dohuk Governorate." It is the northernmost governorate of "Iraq," and of "Iraqi Kurdistan." Some people call Dohuk "Nohadra." It has other names too.
But my field site is soaked with blood.
The victims have been Armenian, Kurdish, Nestorian, Arab, Chaldean, Turkoman.
(I would like to put quotes around these labels too, just like I put them around the places. But this is a piece about blood, and the victims died as their categories, just as the killers killed them in their categories. I think quotes would detract from that point.)My field site is soaked with blood.
My field site used to be called, “The Bahdinan region.” A prince from the Bahdinan family ruled from Amadiya (an incredible natural fortress that you really should see sometime).
But then another prince, ruling from another fortress (that you also should really see sometime) decided to take out his fellow neighboring princes.
It was the 1830s. The Bahdinan princes had ruled since the 1370s. My field site is soaked with blood. Which is not to say that it’s not one of the greatest places in the world. Because it is. Did I mention that I love it, and especially the people there? I also love the mountains, the humor, the flowers, the tea, the dancing.
In 1933 a Kurdish general in the Iraqi army led his men on a killing spree of Assyrians in Simel, a town situated in the middle of Bahdinan. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who developed the term “genocide,” first used his neologism to refer to what occurred in Simel. My field site is the site of the first mass killing to be called “genocide!”
In 1988 the Iraqi army, on orders from Saddam Hussein, killed thousands of people, disappeared thousands more, and razed several thousand villages. The killers were mostly Arabs. The victims were mostly Kurds. A Dutch court later called it “genocide.” Did I mention my field site is soaked with blood? Turks kill.
Kurds kill. Assyrians kill. Arabs kill.
Now everyone from my field site who reads this will be mad at me, for saying that members of their group kill. How can I say this, when their hospitality has been boundless, truly boundless? It’s true, I say to my imaginary critic from my field site, people of all types kill. People kill! Killing doesn’t just take place in my field site. But I notice the killing there, because it’s my field site. Someone will ask me why I didn’t mention Americans killing in my field site. Especially since I am an American, they will ask me that.
Americans haven’t killed in Bahdinan/Dohuk that I know of. In the Mosul area, yes, but that’s half an hour away, and I’m trying to stick to my field site here.
But now an American academic is my imaginary critic, who will say that I should include the American killing zones in Occupied Iraq. I have only spent one day there, in Mosul, and while I was there I saw what was probably intentionally inflicted violence – I saw a structure go rapidly up in flames. (I stop short of calling it an “explosion.” It was not a normal engulfment because it was too fast for that, but then again it was a split second slower than a regular explosion.)
But anyway that wasn’t technically my field site. I suppose I could mention Henry Kissinger selling the Kurdish resistance up the river in 1975. That was pretty bloody even though it was actually someone else doing the killing. Ok, so add Americans to the list.
My field site is soaked with blood.
So now that I have made everyone angry by saying that people with different labels kill, what should I do? Should I have left them anonymous? I did not ask the Institutional Review Board if it was ok to make everyone in my field site angry.
But I think the killers want their labels known. They’re proud of their categories. What to do? Who to accommodate? Should I emphasize victimization instead? That seems better.
Let me talk about my friend who was blown up. He was blown up by Islamists on 1 February 2004. That bomb killed more than 100 others, some of whom I also knew. The victims were Kurds. Kurdish leaders, mostly. My friend used to beat his wife, at least that’s what she told me, complaining to me about him six years before he died. (To think he probably beat her for six more years! I haven’t seen her since to ask her, and this is not exactly something I wish to email her about.)
Is this a digression, since beating is not quite killing, and my point was that my field site is soaked with blood? Who cries for the victims? Their families. Their friends. The people who went to school with them and worked with them. Their neighbors.
Some of the people who cry have killed, or will kill. Humans kill.
Humans in my wonderful field site that feels like a second home, kill. Where people are so friendly. Even men with guns at checkpoints are friendly, and I am not exaggerating (go there and see for yourself).
My field site is soaked with blood. It is the blood of certain categories. Are categories worth this blood?
Some people in my field site are asking this, and working toward a better way. Leaders are working toward a better way. Regular people are working toward a better way. Their achievements are already noticeable.
There is hope!
Diane E. King
University of Kentucky
Note: Peter van Arsdale, chair of the SfAA Human Rights and Social Justice committee, on which I serve, has articulated three “A’s” on which the committee focuses: awareness, action, and advocacy. In this column I combine two of the three “A’s” by “advocating” for “awareness” about the violence that has plagued Bahdinan. It is a great thrill to report that Bahdinan has largely been peaceful and stable since 1997, the end of the internecine conflict between the two main Kurdish parties in Iraq. (Border areas with Turkey have continued to be dangerous, as they are the site of conflict between the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] and the Turkish military, but this conflict does not affect the daily life of most people in Bahdinan. Attacks by Islamists remain a threat, although they happen very infrequently.) The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has brought about many improvements in civil society since taking over from the Iraqi Ba’th regime in 1991, and since the Ba’th regime’s ouster by the United States in 2003, the KRG has been recognized by and works in cooperation with the Iraqi government. The recent period has been the most conflict-free that the region has seen since the 1830s. I salute the efforts of all who have worked to reverse the violence of the past two centuries that caused incalculable human suffering, and I hope for increased awareness, advocacy, and action to militate against further bloodshed.
*This essay was originally published in the January 2009 Newsletter of the Society for Applied Anthropology (Volume 20:1, Pp 32-34). It has been re-published with the approval of the SfAA.